Skills and the regeneration of coastal communities

Coastal communities rarely make the headlines, but they are among the UK’s poorest areas. For every small former fishing port with a Michelin-starred restaurant there are dozens whose populations face unemployment, precariety and low pay. Educational standards are well below average, as are such critical infrastructural resources as transport and broadband.

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Whitby. Photo by R Jordan, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

These criticisms are hardly new, yet current government regeneration initiatives are failing. In the words of a new report from the British Hospitality Association, ‘policy across Government is uncoordinated and often at odds’. Instead, the BHA sets out a seven-point plan for central government – including the devolved administrations – to attract and promote opportunities for investment in coastal economies’.

Skills, I am pleased to see, are one of the key areas for investment. A large proportion of projects supported by the Lottery through the Coastal Communities Fund involved upskilling, and it would be rather nice to see a serious evaluation of these before going much further down this track. We might also ask why BHA members are not already doing far more to raise the skills and qualifications of their workforce. Still, it’s good to see the BHA recognise the need for improving skills.

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Point 6 of the BHA’s seven-point plan

Moreover, the BHA proposals for skills are placed within the context of growing demand for labour. I’ve blogged about skills and coastal communities before (see more here), expressing the view that far too much is said about skills supply and far too little about skills demand and utilisation. The question here is whether the BHA proposals, which rely heavily on tax breaks and infrastructure investment, are enough.

The basic economic problem of coastal communities derive from over-reliance on inherently low-skilled, low-paid industry sectors such as those related to tourism, which often also require part-time and seasonal workers. Seasonality of work also makes it difficult for workers to progress in their careers and reduces the incentive to train, as each job may be with a different employer. Part-time work promotes a tendency for people to hold multiple jobs, and again reduces the incentive to train for any of then.
Many of the most highly educated young people leave in order to attend university. Whatever their intentions at the time, they rarely return after graduating. Essentially, this means that new skills either have to be recruited from outside, or developed in the existing – ie adult – workforce. And adult education provision, for reasons of small scale and under-resourcing, is rarely a strong feature in these areas.
Tackling these structural problems is likely to require more than tax breaks and better infrastructure. It also means breaking the over-reliance of coastal communities on tourism and hospitality.This isn’t how the BHA sees it of course (their report offers the model of Folkestone, whose cultural quarter and triennial arts festival are designed to boost tourism).
Diversifying the economy is challenging, and not always comfortable for existing tourist businesses, as can be seen from the early controversies over the new offshore operations hub at Whitby, which has already started to recruit apprentices as well as bringing highly skilled workers into the town. One side effect has been to strengthen the local training system, with a small but successful fisheries school developing into other maritime areas. This seems to me a much better path to go down than further increasing these communities’ dependence on the low skill, low wage tourism sector.

The benefits of adult learning: information technology and older adults

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The IT Group, Yeovil U3A

I’ve just been reading a study of how adult learning influences older people’s use of information technology. I’ll summarise this study, as it adds to our knowledge about the benefits of adult learning, but if you want to read the original it is available here.

The study is of University of the Third Age students in two Italian centres for seniors. The researchers surveyed 135 individual learners; like many other studies of U3A groups the learners were more likely to be highly educated than the population at large, and the IT groups had more men than average for U3A courses. The survey relied on self-reporting, and examined changes in IT use among those taking the course.

The results were highly illuminating, and they are summarised in the abstract below. The only group who did not benefit significantly from the course were university graduates, which should come as no surprise. Those with lower existing levels of education, and especially those with the lowest levels, experienced the largest benefits.New Picture

Given the increasing role of IT in health care and access to other government services, as well as in everyday communications, these are important findings.Last year I got annoyed with a government minister who’d been sneering at part-time courses in IT for adult learners. She justified her attack on adult learning in machine-like language:

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Well, learning how to use a mouse might just be critical if you are seventy and are terrified to touch a computer. Internet use among older adults is rising, but it falls sharply among the over-65s. Evidence that education changes behaviour as well as attitudes is therefore very welcome.

How does the BBC select its expert academic commentators?

The Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation & Skills is currently looking at the emerging shape of work in modern Britain. As someone interested in skills and learning, I am keeping an eye on their inquiry, and am looking forward to its report. Their work was featured this morning on the BBC’s flagship radio news programme Today, which interviewed the Committee chair and an expert commentator by the name of Jeremy Baker.

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The interview with Baker created something of a Twitter storm. Introduced as ‘a retail analyst and affiliate professor at ESCP Europe Business School’, Baker proceeded to harp on about the notion of employment rights for entry-level workers, including trainees, which he repeatedly derided as ‘French’ and ‘middle class’.

Needless to say, Baker’s ideas were promptly rejected by Iain Wright, MP, who chairs the Select Committee. But given the rather peculiar nature of his comments, it seems reasonable to put the question: who is Jeffrey Baker, and what is his expertise? I did a bit of internet searching, and the results were mildly revealing.

First, the ESCP itself. ECSP is a private higher education institution, active in and recognised by a number of European states, with its origins in Paris. It enjoys a good reputation, and achieves well in international rankings of business schools.

The ESCP website lists Baker as an ‘affiliate professor’. What this means depends on the institution and individual; often, it is an appointment that is approved at departmental level, for someone whom the department wishes to contribute teaching or research.

The ESCP website tells us very little about Baker’s expertise. The one publication it mentions is his book Tolstoy’s Bicycle, described as ‘a creative look at career paths’, but which seems to be a popular compendium of high achievers and their ages, published in 1982. His current research is not listed, nor are his publications. A search on Google Scholar didn’t shed any further light on his expertise.

I have no idea whether the Today programme tried elsewhere and was turned down, or whether Baker or the ESCP put his name forward. But if you want an up-to-date expert on developments in the contemporary labour market, Baker doesn’t seem an obvious first choice.

Perhaps someone chuntering on about the French makes for good radio. But for those of us attempting to promote ideas of research informed policy, this morning’s interview was a step back.

The striking success of the German dual system

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An apprentice addressing strikers in Cologne

There’s a Warnstreik on today, and Cologne is full of striking Kindergarten teachers, social workers, firefighters, health workers and tram drivers. It’s all part of the regular round of negotiations over pay and conditions in the public services, with the union Verdi and the employers engaging in what may or may not be a tactical stand-off.

With the tram service cancelled, I’ve been working at home. At half past eleven, I thought I’d pop along to Heumarkt to buy an espresso and take a look at the union rally, which was large and good-natured. There was a small police presence down by the Rhein, with none of the forcible ‘kettling’ that you tend to see in Britain.

While most of the strikers were clearly people who had spent some time in their jobs, I was struck by the number of apprentices who were there, one of whom was invited to speak from the platform. He described the strike as important for Azubis (Auszubildende) not simply in terms of their pay but also the quality of their training, which he claimed was jeopardized by the employers’ refusal to negotiate.

I’ve a couple of comments to make on this. First, the union doesn’t just recruit apprentices but went out of its way to ensure that their voice was heard. Second, apprentices clearly feel themselves to be a part of their workforce, and they identify strongly with the service that they provide. Both of these factors – as well as their legal status as employees – help to shape their identity as members of an occupational group, in it for the long term.

A new skills agenda for Europe – or a drearily familiar shopping list?

The European Commission prearing to publish a position paper entitled A New Skills Agenda for Europe. Due to appear in late May, the paper is concerned with ‘promoting skills’, including the mutual recognition of qualifications, supporting vocational training and higher education, and ‘reaping the full potential of digital jobs’.

Will the content live up to its title – that is, will it really be ‘new’? Judging by the minutes of the Education Council, much of it will be familiar stuff. It will focus entirely on skills supply, with little or no discussion of how to raise the demand for and utilisation of those skills. Employability will be everything; don’t expect any creative thinking about skills for other areas of life. There could be a brief nod in the direction of equity and inclusion, and there will certainly be much rhetorical excitement about the growth potential of the digital economy.

Finally, because responsibility for skills lies largely with member states, several of whom are worried about ‘competency creep’ in the field of education policy, the Commission will largely confine itself to urging other people to do things, few of which will be innovative. So far, then, so familiar.

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Minutes of the European Council, 24 February 2016

Possibly there will be one new feature, compared with past policy papers on skills. The New Skills Agenda is highly likely to refer to the skills and the integration of refugees. Germany’s experience in the last year suggests that refugee integration into the labour market is proving slower than anticipated, partly because of language difficulties, but also because fewer refugees than anticipated hold recognised qualifications.

If my analysis is right, the energy has drained out of the ‘social Europe’project that was embodied during the 1980s by Jacques Delors. But neither are the largely Right or Centre-Right figures who dominate today’s Commission capable of producing creative and imaginative approaches to the skills and knowledge of Europe’s population, whether established or new. I find it hard to see the new paper making much of a splash, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong when it is published in May.

 

The curious absence of older workers from the equity and skills agenda

One of the things I find admirable in current Scottish policy thinking is that skills policies are broadly aligned with policies for equalities and poverty reduction. Quite how this works out in practice is of course another – very difficult – matteer. But at least the general intention of marrying skills development with equity is clear and unambiguous.

There is, though, a lingering gap in the thinking when it comes to age and ageism. I took a quick look at the 2010 ‘refresh’ of Skills for Scotland, the Scottish Government’s main policy document for the area. This key text barely mentions skills and adult workers, and presents no strategic thinking on the older workforce.

In 63 pages, the word adult is used eleven times; seven of those refer to adult literacy and numeracy, and ESOL, unemployed career guidance, offenders and local council services get one mention each. There is one reference to older workers, in the appendix.

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Age distribution of Scotland’s population in the 2011 census

Scotland’s population profile is an aging one. As in so many European countries but in contrast to England, Scottish society is characterised by low birth rates and relatively low rates of immigration.This has obvious implications for the size and shape of Scotland’s working age population, so the absence of any serious thinking about the upskilling and reskilling of older workers is striking.

Debating adult learning in the House of Lords

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Baroness Sharp, copyright Policy Connect

The House of Lords is an anachronistic piece of our constitution, a second chamber that represents two profoundly undemocratic principles: inherited power, and appointment by the government of the day. So I hope that its days are numbered, but in the meantime it’s the only second chamber we have. And it is discussing adult learning.

First, Baroness Uddin has asked to discuss English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL). This follows the Prime Minister’s announcement that the government is providing £20 millions for migrant women to learn English as a way of preventing terrorism. This is the same government that last July sliced the ESOL budget by £45 millions.

Manzila Pola Uddin, formerly a Labour politician, has a strong track record of involvement in adult education and training, and she has helped promote skills training for Asian women. Sadly, she was caught up in the public scandal over MPs’ expenses, in a way that seriously damaged her credibility.  But I’m inclined to think that she knows what she is talking about, and that her views on our government’s slippery track record on English for Speakers of Other Languages should be listened to.

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Next, Baroness Sharp is debating the role of adult education and lifelong learning in strengthening the UK economy. Formerly the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson in the Lords on further and higher education, Margaret Sharp chaired the 2011 Independent Inquiry into Colleges in Their Communities, sponsored by NIACE, the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group. She is also an active member of the Lords’ Select Committee on Social Mobility, which is due to report shortly.

Adult learning hasn’t exactly been a priority for their Lordships in recent years. But here we are – two debates in a single morning. I’ve just been asked to brief one of the members of the Lords, and it will be interesting to see whether any of my suggestions get an airing. More importantly, while they are unlikely to produce much in the way of direct change in government policy, Lords debates provide an opportunity to shape the wider climate of opinion, and set the longer term direction of travel.